The Paper Gladiator

CHICAGO -- Nearly 10 months ago to the day, Sammy Sosa walked into an interview room at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, took a seat behind a small table, flashed his best mini-cam smile and happily told the assembled reporters that, yes, 2004 was going to be the year of the Chicago Cubs.

"I know we have everything it's going to take to win everything," said Sosa, only hours before the Opening Day game against the Reds.

Sosa was in his full Samminess that day -- self-assured, regal, not arrogant but close. He wore his game pants, a pair of Easton running shoes, a blue warmup pullover. His forearms and wrists were taped per the Sammy custom.

The Cubs' lineup, he decreed, was "great." The annual talk about Cubs futility, he said, "is going to be over pretty soon." And then in a solemn Sammy moment, he spoke of a "responsibility" shared by him and the Cubs in 2004. I jotted Captain Cub's comments in my cheapie red notebook.

Minutes later, the pregame news conference finished, Sosa grabbed his bottle of water from the table and returned to the visitors' clubhouse. No one knew it at the time, but the Sammy Farewell Tour had begun.

Barring the unexpected during the next 24 to 48 hours, Sosa will officially cease to be a Cub. Instead, he returns to the American League, where his big-league career began in 1989. It will take two Bekins moving vans to ship his belongings -- one for his throne, boom box and salsa CDs, and one for his ego.

The simple truth is that Sosa's 13-season Cubs career ended months before the Cubs struck a tentative deal with the Baltimore Orioles on Friday. It ended Oct. 3, 2004 -- Game 162 of the Cubs championship season that never was.

As part of a season-long book project, I was in the Wrigley Field clubhouse that final day. Sosa didn't roll in until about noon for the 1:20 start -- he wasn't in the starting lineup -- and he was gone less than 15 minutes after the first pitch. The Cubs won their 89th game, Greg Maddux won his 16th and Wrigley organist Gary Pressy played "Our Day Will Come" at afternoon's end.

But it was Sosa's breach of baseball etiquette -- bolting from a game, on the final day, no less -- that further confirmed what Cubs management and many of his own teammates already knew: that the self-proclaimed Gladiator had skin as thin as an ivy leaf, that he was a hypocrite and, worse yet, a liar.

You had to be there that day to understand the betrayal. You could see it in the incredulous expressions of Cubs players as they glanced at his empty pair of locker stalls. Several Sosa jerseys, the ones with C (for team captain) on the elastic sleeves, were still hanging on a metal rod. You could see it as Cubs general manager Jim Hendry tried to compose himself before commenting on Sosa's early departure. You could see it as manager Dusty Baker sighed wearily and said, "This is a first for me."

Sosa ditched the Cubs because he was angry with a pregame comment by Baker, in which the manager had the nerve to suggest the Gladiator arrive at 2005 spring training in "tip-top shape mentally and physically." Sosa later told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "resents the inference that I'm not prepared."

This is the same Sosa who once said, "I thank God for the opportunity to, uh, thank God." So when his statement features "resents the inference," I immediately smell agent product. In the same interview, Sosa said he didn't leave the game until the seventh inning.

Oops. The Cubs had his departure on security camera videotape. Try 13 minutes after the first Maddux pitch.

Sosa couldn't coexist with Baker, a Mr. People Person who protected the Gladiator to the point of damaging his own managerial credibility. He couldn't coexist with the full-time manager who preceded Baker, Don Baylor. And it's safe to say he wasn't always on the same page as the manager who preceded Baylor, Jim Riggleman. But when you're averaging 55 home runs per season, as Sosa did between 1998 and 2003, the personality conflicts are worth the trouble. Not so much in 2004.

You want to know why Sosa is no longer a Cub? Because he forgot how to take the temperature of a city that can stomach losing but despises frauds. He underestimated the long-term effects of his annual late arrivals to spring training, his no-shows at the yearly Cubs Convention, the 2003 corked-bat incident, the 2004 hissy fits when Baker had no choice but to drop him in the batting order, the ditch-and-lie incident of Oct. 3.

Had Sosa made any effort to repair the public relations damage, he'd still be a Cub today. Instead, one of his agents issued a half-hearted, carefully worded non-apology apology to explain the ditching episode. And just a few days ago, another Sosa agent told The Sporting News that Sosa "deserves better than this."

Actually, he deserves exactly this. After all, this is a legacy Sosa forged himself, home run by home run, insolent act by insolent act. He was showered with fame, fortune and, at times, boos -- and in the end, he didn't know how to handle any of the three.

Sosa's final game as a playing Cub included a home run and a strikeout, which figures. Now he takes his diminishing skills to Baltimore, where a cozy ballpark, but some of baseball's most discerning fans, await. What happens if they boo, too?

I can already hear Sosa. He'll rave about the Orioles' lineup, about having something to prove. But he misses the point. Sosa had something to prove in Chicago but took the easy way out.

He bolted. Again.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, and author of "Cubs Nation: 162 Games, 162 Stories, 1 Addiction," which will be available in April.